Interview with Peter Sanger

p. *an excerpt from*
h2. The long view: An interview with poet Peter Sanger on his collaboration with photographer Thaddeus Holownia
Editor’s note: Since 1994, Peter Sanger and Thaddeus Holownia have collaborated on three book projects that bring poem and photograph together. Not wholly of either discipline, the books exist in their own space, one that has been largely overlooked. Holownia has said: “these collaborations are borne out of a spirit of respect for the subject… we start with a blank slate and move forward with both of us traveling a parallel course of discovery.” [_The Third Hand_] (1994) features twenty poems/riddles and a chromogenic print for its frontispiece. Limited to an edition of 250 copies, it was printed at the Tribune Press in Sackville, NB. [_Ironworks_] followed in 1995. Featuring seven platinum prints with seven accompanying poems, it was printed at Anchorage Press in an edition of 20. In 2001, a trade edition of [_Ironworks_] was published by Anchorage Press in Jolicure, NB ( “”: ) in an edition of 1,500. This edition features tritone reproductions of the original prints, with seven accompanying poems. In 2005, Anchorage published [_Arborealis_] in four limited/collector editions. This interview with Peter Sanger was conducted by post, from February 2005 to March 2006.

*MH:* At what point did the actual collaboration begin–when did it become apparent that there was something about these items that the two of you could explore together?
*PS:* I can’t remember exactly when Thaddeus and I began. I can guess it was perhaps autumn 1993. Our beginning was, I do remember, also bound up with my preparation for an exhibition of farm tools which the Mary E. Black Gallery in Halifax asked me to create. That exhibition led to another book collaboration with Thaddeus, [_The Third Hand_], which was, in effect, an exhibition catalogue. [_Ironworks_] and [_The Third Hand_] were, as texts, virtually written together, although their first publication was separated by a year. I think something of my activity with the mounting of the Halifax exhibition may have given Thaddeus a few hints of imaginative possibilities. He did attend the exhibition’s opening, to my great delight, in 1994. But remember Thaddeus was already committed to exploring artifactures as records of light and attritioned surface before he knew me. There is his earlier collaboration with Michael Thorpe, [_Artefact_]. In other words, we had parallel concerns before we met. I do remember, as I completed certain poems in [_Earth Moth_], wondering if any photographer would ever be interested in matching my words to an image. I’m afraid I was too self-absorbed to consider that it would be more likely the case, if such a thing happened, that I would be working from an image given me to words I still had to find. Such was the case with [_Ironworks_], though [_Arborealis_] would proceed in yet another way.
*MH:* In writing poetry “from an image,” an image whose words you “still had to find,” is it your opinion that writing and photography naturally share certain sensibilities? With [_Ironworks_] were there any images–or things–to which words could not be bound? And what is the “alchemy” in photography or poetry that reflects on material things, on obsolete things?
*PS:* The relationship between image and word are not predictable or workable by formula–no art is. For me, Thaddeus’s photographs are as much great acts of fidelity to context as are the complete texts of, say, Thoreau’s [_Walden_] or Melville’s [_Moby Dick_]. One thing I regretted not saying in Sackville [at the launch for [_Arborealis_]] is that among the strange coincidences of choice and knowledge we shared, unknowingly, before we met, was our admiration for the work of the American photographer, Walker Evans. I’m sure Thaddeus knows Evan’s work in many other ways, in many other sources, but I knew his work from the photographs Evans took while on assignment investigating the American South with the novelist, James Agee, during the Great Depression. Evans’s photographs appear at the beginning of James Agee’s account, ==Let Us Now Praise Famous Men==, a book which is always in my mind when I write, but particularly as an immediately-to-hand touchstone when I work with Thaddeus’s photographs. You’ll find some photographs of objects and descriptions of objects in the photographs of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (notice my emphasis under praise) which have a bearing upon [_The Third Hand_], [_Ironworks_] and [_Arborealis_]. You ask me about sensibilities Thaddeus and I share. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t read Rilke’s “thing poems”–you’d have to ask him–but, as the Evans example shows, we do, I think, share a similar sensibility to images.
As for the alchemy, what else is photography, basically, but the recovery of darkness and light; of darkness into light; of lost, transient image into present, permanent image (as much on earth as such things can be)? These also are the processes of the
kind of poetry I’ve tried to write. I used to think that my poetry differed from Thaddeus’s photographs in that I had to cope with the difficulties of extension over time, the time of the poem, the literal paced procession of syntax, whereas (as I thought), Thaddeus’s photographs were instantly apprehensible as image. I was wrong–because Thaddeus’s photographs always offer themselves as artifacts construable over time–if we were blind and they could be rendered into some form of tactile Braille, I believe we could read their surfaces by finger tips just as script may be read up-and-down and from side-to-side, moment-by-movement. Of course, I’m speaking analogically, but I’m trying to speak as accurately as I can.
*MH:* Your most recent project together, [_Arborealis_], takes on a much different subject matter: the terrain of Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park and Northern Penninsula. Has this changed the way you write in response to photographs? If so, is this a factor of the ‘things’ of/in the photograph or of your own experience/reaction to the original places themselves?
*PS:* There was little difference in moving from the objects of [_Ironworks_] to the landscapes and seascapes of [_Arborealis_]. What did have to change for me, as poet, however, was narrative approach. In [_Ironworks_] it was possible to voice the alchemies of photography and artifacture as interior voice; [_Arborealis_]’s narrator (who, if you like, appears as the projected shadow in the book’s first photograph) has an existence prior and (I hope) subsequent to the poems. There’s a sense in which [_Ironworks_] is, by comparison, a set of lyric poems, while [_Arborealis_] is a novel–with many possible plot lines depending upon what its words and images elicit from the reader. The wish to make many possible plot lines was one of the reasons why Thaddeus and I did not set the photographs and poems en face consistently. Is it allowable to say we wanted the photographs and poems each to have a kind of oxymoronic intertwined independence? The last thing we wanted to do was produce yet another book of pictures and words like so many coffee-table books in which the text says what is in the photograph, or the photograph illustrates the text.
*MH:* In [_Arborealis_] you’ve chosen a very specific two-stanza form. At your launch you described the poem form as sonnet-like, having contrapuntal stanzas of thesis and antithesis (though not always). You also claimed that the duality reflected that of the book’s text and image. With two different artistic languages such as these, what is the white space between them?
*PS:* I’m not so sure that in the case of [_Arborealis_] (or [_Ironworks_]) there is that discontinuity. Of course, in a culture like that of the present, which is far more at ease with images than words, the “user” of [_Arborealis_] may perceive a discontinuity. I know that has, in effect, happened, because Thaddeus’s images are pretty well universally praised, whereas almost no-one has commented on the texts. But that situation is, as I say, a matter of the moment, our present cultural moment. Blake’s illuminated books were composed for another kind of cultural moment–so were the alchemical books of the Seventeenth century and the illustrated missals and gospels of that and earlier centuries. [_Arborealis_] and [_Ironworks_] are deliberately situated within that tradition–one which brings life to both word and image. In Canada, its main (and great) practitioners are the late Richard Outram and his wife, the painter, engraver, book designer and binder, Barbara Howard. Richard, incidentally, saw a very rough mockup of [_Arborealis_] before he died and wrote to me “Don’t change a word!”
*MH:* Are the poem and the photograph counterpoint or harmony?
*PS:* The poems in [_Arborealis_] are in a relationship which might roughly be called counterpointed narrative, linked but discreet. By that analogy, the poems constitute one harmony and the photographs another, but the two harmonics (actually, I think there are really more than two: they are, in the sense of “plot,” multiple) are in counterpoint. If we’re to keep up the musical analogy, I think of [_Arborealis_] as resembling those moments in, say, Don Giovanni or The Magic Flute when all the major characters are singing ensemble and each is singing his or her separate pre-occupation.
*MH:* What led you to change the sequencing structure you’ve used in past projects?
*PS:* I don’t want to impose a narrative. There are, as I noted earlier, multiple narratives. Among them are, I hope, the narrative of each user of the book. I’ll say this much: there are cues given in the epigraphs from Giacometti and Becket–and the notes on Colonna’s [_Hypnerotomachia Poliphili_], together with Fierz-David’s commentary on it. Those sources are not cited in any merely ornamental way. [_Arborealis_] can be read as a note inscribed on one of the endpapers of a dog-eared copy of [_Waiting for Godot_]. It can also be read as the dream of erotic strife, in which a figure who may be called Venus Pandemos assumes many guises. The narrator in [_Arborealis_] is not me or Thaddeus, although he shares some of our memories. If he has an occupation, he is a sailor, in edgy intermittent contact, as all sailors must be, with celestial navigation. (Some of the possible terminological opaqueness of the text, especially in its early parts, may clear if the user of the book thinks about how a ship gets where it’s going). The sailor is also a shadow. There is an accidental picture of him in the photograph opposite the epigraph page. You could call that the shadow of Odysseus–or of Vaughan, Brothers, or Carew. If these complications seem baroque, that is also some of [_Arborealis_]’ intention. The baroque, as a style, is both fluid and resistant–resistant particularly in the demands it makes as what Yeats (and Thompson) called “high talk.” To return to a subject we touched on earlier, the discontinuity perceived between text and image may disappear if both are read passionately, if the eye and ear both sound the convolutions of meaning and implication. Thaddeus’s images are as resonant as any text. My text is meant to assist an auricular reading of his images. I know his images provide my texts with the finest possible optical gloss they’ll ever secure–whether the texts are up to the gloss or not is another matter. I hope they are as equally resistant. [_Arborealis_] is not meant to be a book to be flipped through quickly, once. It is not that kind of an object. To repeat, it is radical.
*MH:* Reading the text of [_Arborealis_], at times it seems more of star and sea than the prominent land- and treescapes of the photographs. Yet the boreal landscape is very significant in the work. Can you speak to the role of tree, and of place, in this book?
*PS:* There is a wood of mineral hardness called “lignum vitae.” The tree from which it is taken is not northern, but a similar tree of life grows in Gros Morne, in Trout Gulch, where Thaddeus took many of the photographs in [_Arborealis_]. There, trees of great age are dwarfed by the soil in which they must grow–snow, ice, wind strip them almost completely of bark. They endure. In their elemental disfigurations (as Thaddeus’s photographs show), they are starbursts in the boreal light. Struck by the wind, they are the masts and spars of earth’s vessel. (There is a poem about this towards the end of the prose part of [_White Salt Mountain_].) In [_Waiting for Godot_], the only piece of scenery is a tree (in the original production, made by Giacometti, as the epilogue notes to [_Arborealis_] say), fom which the two protagonists (with names very much like “Navo”) are tempted to hang themselves. There are hanged men in many cultures. The shadow in [_Arborealis_] could have been one of them. Instead, he praises. [_Arborealis_] is a book, a boat, a star, a tree of praises.
*MH:* Earlier, you spoke of your very physical and tactile relationship to the blacksmith’s iron in [_Ironworks_]–you described the act of reclaiming and working on the metal tools as sculptural and akin to writing poetry. With [_Arborealis_] is this relationship still there? Is it changed?
*PS:* Just as my experience with the blacksmith’s iron was physical, tactile, so also was (and is) my experience with the land and seascapes of [_Arborealis_]. If not with ships, at least with various kinds of boats I’ve been messing around with since I was ten years old; first on the Great Lakes, especially Lake Saint Clair; second, on the Pacific, in Australia; third in Nova Scotia, canoeing. I began my teaching career in Newfoundland, back in the mid-1960s, worked in and travelled the outports. In the summer of 1970 I worked in a fishplant on the Burin Peninsula in Newfoundland. During the last ten years, I’ve been able to make several trips on Canadian Naval Reserve minesweepers. The two latter experiences, in particular, offered physical, tactile experience to [_Arborealis_]. As for the experience with landscape, I’ve lived in rural Nova Scotia for nearly forty years and taught at an agricultural college for nearly thirty of them.
But your question implies something more than that I provide experiential evidence. Truth is, I’m deeply suspicious of attempts to produce regional aesthetics. Like my first collection of poems, [_The American Reel_], [_Arborealis_] tries to indicate concerns wider than those usually regarded as regional. Both collections are involved with certain ironies and passions. Both propose a metaphysics inherent in the physical. Part of the irony in each is that their protagonists are far less provincial than they may, to a simplifying auditor or reader, seem. To me, by the way, ideas are tactile. The letters of words have edges. I’m sure Thaddeus experiences a similar tactility when handling his photographs. [_Arborealis_], as I’ve heard Thaddeus say at a presentation, was put together, finally, on our kitchen table in South Maitland. The photographs and pages of the poems were physically moved around in a method which reminds me of stacking wood or mending a stone wall.


fn0. _Arc_ 56, Summer 2006
see issue for the full interview as well as poems and photographs from the collaborative bookworks of Peter Sanger and Thaddeus Holownia

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